McArt's Fort - the story behind the shot
I was up on top of Cavehill on Sunday and the conditions - as they often are up there - were magical. The sheer scale of the scene before me was almost impossible to take in. High above, cirrus cloud streaked across the sky. Far in the distance, a bank of fluffy cumulus cloud traced the horizon line. Down below my hill-top vantage point, fog banks moved across the city, pulsating bands of mist that sometimes obscured, sometimes revealed the infrastructure below.
Sometimes it can be a real challenge to capture the essence of views like this. Do you focus on the distance with a zoom lens, picking out far off detail? Or do you try to capture everything before you?
Often, at times like this, it's good to think of three depths to your composition: the foreground, the mid-ground and the background. And that's what I was trying to do with this shot.
The obvious subject matter that caught my eye was the mid-ground: McArt's Fort, jutting out from the rest of the plateau. Especially in this case, I had some people standing on it, their tiny figures giving a sense of scale and just how big this prominence is.
Beyond and below them, in the background, lay the city of Belfast, the mist causing it to fade away with distance, and yet with hints of the buildings and that smoking chimney adding just a hint of scale and detail in the background.
If I had simply composed the photo with those two elements, it would have been okay. But I would have missed out a chance to create even more depth and interest. Because, in my immediate foreground, were some grasses being lit by the strong and low winter sun to the south. I decided to include them in my composition. And this time I was looking for them to trace a diagonal line into the picture, especially as lines of McArt's Fort were nearly horizontal and vertical. In moments like these, little movements a foot or two one way or the other can make the difference in terms of strong composition. And I repositioned myself a couple of times until I got the angle right to produce a leading line into the picture.
It's this element, this final little piece of detail, that is often overlooked in photography. But looking for this bit of foreground interest, often by crouching down just that little bit to change your perspective, can really lift your compositional work.
Compare the photo above with this cropped version with the foreground taken out. In your view, what difference does the loss of the foreground make to the final image?
Now look back at the original photo again, complete with the grasses in the foreground. How does your eye travel around the shot? Does the foreground grass catch you eye first? Does it then sweep you towards the mid-ground? Do you notice the people and how small they are? Does the smoke from the chimney catch your eye in the background? Or maybe your eye takes a completely different route around!
One last thing. As well as the contrasts between the three planes of the image, I wanted a strong black and white shot with big contrasts between light and dark. I wanted McArt's Fort to stand out as an almost solid black block, contrasting with the lightness of the sky and background. And the highlights on the grass stalks in the foreground were to add some textural detail to draw the eye in.
This is the kind of photo you could easily take with a phone camera. So next time you're faced with a view like this, think about the different planes of viewing. Look for the foreground detail to draw the eye in. And experiment a bit with your positioning. You never know what you might be able to come up with!